By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

France produces more wine each year than any other country (although Italy has been neck and neck with France lately), and France still has one of the highest per capita wine consumption rates of any major country in the world (although not as high as it used to be). The French have set the standard in wine.

Why did France become the most famous place in the world for wine?

  • For one thing, the French have been doing it for a long time — making wine, that is. Even before the Romans conquered Gaul and planted vineyards, the Greeks arrived in France with their vines.

  • Equally important is French terroir, the magical combination of climate and soil that, when it clicks, can yield grapes that make breathtaking wines.

  • And what grapes! France is the birthplace of almost all the renowned varieties in the world — Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, just to name a few.

France is the model, the standard setter, for the world’s wines: Most wine-producing countries now make their own versions of wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and so on, thanks to the success of these grapes in France.

Understanding French wine law

Way back in 1935, France developed a system of defining its wine regions, and that system became the legislative model for most other European countries. It’s called the Appellation dOrigine Contrôlée, or AOC (translated as “regulated place-name” or “regulated origin name”) system.

The European Union’s (E.U.’s) modern framework of wine laws, within which the AOC system now operates, is also modeled on the French system. Knowing about this French system helps you understand a lot about not just French wines but also many other European wines.

To understand French wine laws, you need to know five things:

  • Most French wines are named after places. (These aren’t arbitrary places; they’re places registered and defined in French wine regulations.)

  • Most of the time, the wine and the region have the same name (as in Burgundy wine, from Burgundy).

  • The French wine system is hierarchical. Some wines (that is, the wines of some places) officially rank higher than other wines.

  • Generally, the smaller and more specific the place for which a wine is named, the higher its rank.

  • Just because a wine carries a high rank doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better than the next wine; it just means that it should be better. The laws rate the potential of the place where the wine comes from and are not infallible indications of a wine’s actual quality.

Approved and regulated French wine regions fall into two categories. The following French phrases, which appear on the label, indicate the category. (Wines in the first category generally cost more.) From higher to lower, the categories are

  • Appellation Contrôlée, or AC (or AOC) — known in the new system as Appellation d’Origine Protégée, or AOP. This is the higher grade. On the label, the place-name of the wine usually appears in the middle of the French phrase.

  • Vin de Pays, meaning “country wine” — known in the new system as Indication Géographique Protégée, or IGP. On the label, the phrase is followed by a place-name, such as Vin de Pays (or IGP) de lHérault, which indicates the area where the grapes grew; the places or regions are generally much larger than the places or regions referred to in the first category.

One very small category, which fell between these two, was eliminated at the end of 2011. This was Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, or VDQS, wine (translated as “demarcated wine of superior quality”).

If a French wine does not have one of the preceding official terms on its label — in either the original or new version — then it is simply Vin de France, a wine from grapes grown anywhere in France rather than in a specific region.

Fine distinctions in the ranks

France’s system of place-naming its wines is actually a bit more complex than the two neat categories described above might imply. Although all AOC or AOP wines/places hold exactly the same legal status — say, they’re all generals in the French wine army — the market accords some AOCs higher regard (and higher prices) than others, based on the specificity of their terroirs and their reputations.

Some large AOC/AOP territories have smaller AOC/AOP zones nestled within them. Wines produced from grapes grown only within the smaller territory can carry the name of that smaller territory, which is a more specific AOC name than that of the larger area.

For example, within the large AOC region of Bordeaux, some wines can carry the name of a district, such as Haut-Médoc, which is part of Bordeaux. That district can itself encompass even smaller AOC zones; wines made from grapes grown in these more limited zones may use yet another AOC name, such as Pauillac, a village. (They’re all generals, but some of them have silver stars.)

The more specific the place described in the wine name, the finer the wine is generally considered to be in the eyes of the market, and the higher the price the winemaker can ask. Naturally, a winemaker will generally use the most specific name to which his wine is entitled.

In increasing order of specificity, an AOC or AOP name can be the name of

  • A region (Bordeaux or Burgundy, for example)

  • A district (Haut-Médoc or Côte de Beaune)

  • A subdistrict (Côte de Beaune-Villages)

  • A village or commune (Pauillac or Meursault)

  • A specific vineyard (Le Montrachet)

Unfortunately, unless you know French geography and place-names, you won’t know which type of place an AOC/AOP name refers to just by looking at the label.